Those of us who grew up in Christian homes are all familiar with the parable of the Good Samaritan. Sadly we learned this week that the tale has a very different ending in China:
A toddler was going down to the street to play, she was run over by an inattentive driver, who paused a moment to consider what to do and then departed, leaving her half dead. By chance, a certain merchant was going down that way. When he saw her, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a mother also, when she came to the place with her own child, and saw the injured toddler, passed by on the other side. Sixteen others did the same, but a certain scrap collector, as she traveled, came where the girl was. When she saw her, she was moved with compassion, came to her, moved her from the road, and hurried to find her mother. The girl was taken to the hospital, but the doctors have little hope of recovery. Update: The girl has passed away after several days of treatment.
This story has dominated headlines internationally this week, and has resulted in a kind of crisis in the hearts of many Chinese. The question that myself and millions of others have been pondering for days is what kind of system creates a society where 18 people can walk past a dying child?
Every news report from the state presses (and most of the foreign ones), have included the story of a man named Peng Yu in Nanjing who was sued by a woman after helping her. The old woman was successful in seeking damages from the man because the judge claimed that the man wouldn’t have helped her unless he was guilty of injuring her in the first place. This case is repeated ad nauseam each time a person is left suffering by callous spectators. Like the man in Wuhan who collapsed in a market and was left where he lay for 90 minutes before someone called for help (he died of a nose bleed that blocked his airway).
While this is a legal defense of people’s actions, I am not satisfied by it. After all it has been 5 years since Peng Yu was sued, isn’t that enough time for China’s famously swift-acting government to have passed a law protecting good Samaritans?
Between similarities with the parable itself and the lack of a “Good Samaritan” law in China, people quickly connected the lack of religion with the lack of concern for human life. While I am a Christian, and I would like to think things would have been different if one of those people believed in heaven or hell, there is no evidence that one of the people who passed the girl by didn’t hold those beliefs. By conservative estimates about 5% of China is religious, and Guangdong (where this happened) was one of the first places opened to missionaries.
It is also important to note that the woman who did act, was not necessarily religious (some quotes imply that she has ideas about divine judgement, but nothing concrete). In the story of the parable told by Jesus, the Samaritan himself wasn’t moved by religion, but was “moved by compassion.” So perhaps something was interfering with these people’s basic sense of humanity. I think though that it was not simply coincidental that it was a person who had been marginalized by society, an illiterate scrap collecting woman, that stopped to help the child when no one else would.
The final trend was pointing the finger at the communist party, who had killed morality. A good Chinese friend’s first reaction to the story was that in the past there was Confucianism, then Maoism replaced that, then when Maoism was wiped away with opening up, China was left with a moral vacuum. The Party then proceeded to fill this void with materialism in the name of GDP. He argued that something like this would never happen in Taiwan where traditional Chinese values still exist. When he said this, the office fell silent, and a few nodded, including the one who had been to Taiwan (silence might also have meant some were uncomfortable with the open discussion of politics).
While I can’t speak to the voracity of the claims about people in Taiwan, I don’t know how the Party could have so completely deadened the hearts of those who passed the toddler by. Many of them were young, and some had their own children, how could Mao and the Party be entirely to blame? If Mao didn’t manage to break down ideas about family, how could he have destroyed ideas even more central to our humanity?
We will never fully know why those 18 people walked by. Perhaps they actually thought the girl had simply fallen, maybe they were late to a meeting. They might have been worried about legal consequences, or indifferent to heavenly retribution. They could have been concerned about her blood ruining their new clothes, or were worried that the blood on their clothes would be seen as evidence of their guilt. But perhaps the reason we’re so concerned about their motivation or lack of empathy is that we worry that it might be us one day who walk past the person in need because it would have been inconvenient in some way to help. We hope there is something we could point to about what those 18 did so we can say “See, I’m different, I would have helped.”
Update: In the comments many people are pointing to the “Bystander effect” while this in someway explains the people’s inaction, it also applies largely to group situations, which this was not. According to research done on the topic, those who witness an accident while alone helped them 70% of the time, while in a group it was only 40% of the time. It seems that this too fails to sufficiently explain why 18 people walked past a dying toddler.